"It sends a shiver down my spine - the idea that George Osborne will turn up at the House of Commons in a few days if a Conservative government is elected and just slash £6 billion out of our public services." So said Prime Minister Gordon Brown, sounding a cautionary note over the Tory spending plans. It is to be hoped that his fear of slash-and-burn policies in the public sector is extended to the policies of his own party as well as to Tory schemes. Because, at this time, with a shallow and unconvincing recovery from the bankers' crisis just about hanging on by its fingernails, any programme of public-sector cuts, by whichever party, could spark a dramatic drop into recession. Labour is being far too equivocal about this issue, warning against Tory cuts and, at the same time, signalling impending Labour cutbacks that would make Margaret Thatcher look like the good fairy. It really is time that Mr Brown makes up his mind about this issue and sets Labour on a course to defend public services, not just in the short term, but as a real and necessary part of the economy in the medium and long term as well. Mr Brown is not alone in his concern. It is shared by all the public-sector trade unions, although their concerns are far more wide-ranging that those of the Labour leader, certainly in terms of timetabling.
And those concerns are brought into sharp focus by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which has warned that the jobs cull contemplated by all the big parties could lead to a 10 per cent reduction in the 5.8 million public-sector workforce, "dwarfing" anything in the election manifestos. It warns that more than 500,000 public-sector jobs could be axed in the next five years under a post-election squeeze on spending and cautions that it is "misleading" to suggest that the pain of job losses could be eased by pay cuts or short-time working. Which is pretty unequivocal and ties in firmly with warnings that the unions have been making throughout the present crisis. Coming from what is essentially a bosses' organisation, it heavily underlines the unions' case and should give Mr Brown at least a pause for thought over the consequences of the culling that Chancellor Alistair Darling and others have been trailing. Half a million job losses over the life of the next government would be a hammer-blow that no economy could easily ride out and such a prospect should never be carelessly contemplated by a Labour government. The polls are not giving Mr Brown any real cause for joy at the moment. In fact, Labour is only keeping its head above water because the public knows instinctively that the jobs butchery contemplated by the Tories and the Lib Dems would be disastrous.
Labour has, to some extent at least, saved its electoral bacon so far because of the concerns that millions of public-sector workers have over their employment and it is the only party that has shown even the slightest concern about them. In the face of an artificially induced blind panic over the level of public debt, the Tories and Lib Dems have responded as you might expect, with heavy-handed threats about swingeing cutbacks on the horizon. If Labour is to win the coming election, and it still has a slim chance to do so, it will only manage by emerging as the defender of jobs and services, not as merely hanging back to batter the sector into submission if and when the economy is a little steadier. It's not too late for a change of emphasis, but it must be done quickly if it is to have any effect. However, that would need a degree of courage and a lack of dogmatism by new Labour's leaders that is difficult to imagine without intense pressure from a trade union movement which seems to have lost the inclination to use its power against Labour's obdurate and reactionary right-wing leadership.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.